Jon Elster


1) Jon Elster's Methodological Individualism

"There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."

--Margaret Thatcher, 1987

"There are no societies, only individuals who interact with each other."

--Jon Elster, 1989


The two big questions of Marxism in the twentieth century are:

--The failure of the working-class in the industrialized nations to act as a consistently revolutionary force.

--The emergence of Stalinist dictatorship in the former Soviet Union.

This questions have engaged a wide variety of thinkers who are not officially attached to any Marxist-Leninist party. If you are an intellectual with membership in such parties, you tend to accept the orthodoxy that all is well with the world. Either the problems don't exist or we are here to fix them. Every so often a stubborn individual from such parties comes along like Gramsci, Althusser or even Louis Godena to speak their mind and challenge orthodoxy. This is a necessity for revolutionary parties, by the way. It must allow for the free exchange of ideas, just as the kind that occurs in this sometimes dysfunctional mailing list.

It is easier to attack these problems if you are not a party member. The people who have the strongest tendency to examine them are of course the intelligentsia, particularly college instructors. They are not bound by any shibboleth. They have another problem, however, and that is their tendency to not only to remove dogma from Marxism but also to make it acceptable to academia as a whole. Their message becomes more directed to their professional peers rather than the working-class. This is most true of the school called Analytical Marxism.

Today I want to take a look at Jon Elster, an AM'er most closely identified with Rational Choice theory. I am less interested in the Rational Choice topic than I am in Elster's absolutely anti-Marxist views on the subject of class and the class-struggle. One of the reasons it is worthwhile to examine his views is that it will strengthen our own understanding as Marxists about the true meaning of class.

Elster's rejection of the Marxist notion of class is tied up with his rejection of what he calls "methodological holism." Marx mistakenly believed that "in social life there exists wholes or collectivities." Elster opposes "methodological individualism" to this. In Chapter 2 of "An Introduction to Karl Marx", he identifies himself with the view that "all institutions, behavior patterns, and social processes can in principle be explained in terms of individuals only: their actions, properties, and relations."

It is not to difficult to understand where this obsession with "individualism" comes from. The book was written in 1986 at a time when Reaganism and Thatcherism was in full bloom. Leaders of the two most powerful imperialist nations in history had embraced a libertarian philosophy associated with Hayek, Mises, et al. Alan Greenspan, the head of the Federal Reserve, was an open admirer of the crank novelist and cult leader Ayn Rand. Her novel "Atlas Shrugged" is a paean to individualism.

In Chapter 6 of "An Introduction to Karl Marx", Elster critique of class follows logically from his methodological individualism. Elster tries to search for ways to tie Marx's investigations to his own methodological individualism and the results are problematic. He sees class as a combination of individuals, who simply raise the stakes of each of their separate self-interest into one powerful bloc. He says:

"Marx's theory of class begins with a certain set of objectively defined interests, created by relations of exploitation and domination in production. Objectively speaking, people have an interest in not being exploited and dominated. For most of them, this interest can be realized only by collective action. Individual betterment by upward social mobility is an option for some but not the great majority. The theory first addresses, albeit very scantily, the question of why some objective interests emerge as subjectively felt whereas others do not. It then investigates, much more extensively, people who have moved up from the third to the second category and then move further up into the first. Taken together, these analyses amount to a theory of class consciousness."

This description has nothing to do with Marx's real goal. Marx was interested in explaining the historical origin of class society, specifically capitalism. Elster's model brackets out history and treats classes as collections of individuals trying to sort out mutually conflicting self-interests. This confrontation is identical to the class struggle.

The class struggle involves "several organized classes with opposed interests" who are in "confrontation" with each other. This social conflict, according to Marx, explains social change. This is a flawed way of thinking since it claims that only class interests are capable of congealing into organized interest groups. But, Elster points out, "in the light of the persisting importance of religious, ethnic, nationalistic, and linguistic social movements, the claim cannot be defended."

Elster ascribes a crudely reductionist version of Marxism that has little to do with Marx's own approach to the topic of class struggle. Marx never tried to deduce some automatic equivalency between a class and its historic interest. Any review of his journalistic masterpieces will reveal this on almost any page, especially, for example, in the pages of The Class Struggles in France where he says:

"In France, the petty bourgeois does what normally the industrial bourgeois would have to do; the worker does what normally would be the task of the petty bourgeois; and the task of the worker, who accomplishes that? No one. In France it is not accomplished; in France it is complained. It is not accomplished anywhere within the national walls; the class war within French society turns into a world war, in which the nations confront one another. Accomplishment begins only at the moment when, through the world war, the proletariat is pushed to the van of the people that dominates the world market, to the van of England. The revolution, which finds here not its end, but its organizational beginning is no short-lived revolution. The present generation is like the Jews whom Moses let through the wilderness. It has not only a new world to conquer, it must go under in order to make room for the men who are able to cope with a new world."

How little this has to do with Elster's pallid and schematic notion of classes acting as the group manifestation of individual self-interest! In real class society, things are much more complex and *contradictory*. And how Elster hates contradiction. On page one of his introduction, he expresses sympathy with those who are new to Marxism and discover references to terms such as the "dialectical unity of opposites." Well, part of the problem is that Marx never used such clumsy formulations. Because some hack from the University of Moscow did, this is not the fault of Marx.

Why do classes sometimes not act in their own self-interest? Why did the working-class go off to fight trench warfare in WWI against their own class interests? Why did their petty-bourgeois leadership side with the bourgeoisie in its war aims rather than side with the working class? Why did a section of the German working class embrace the Swastika? Do all of these contradictory phenomena disqualify the Marxist concept of class as a method of understanding history and society?

They would if you were simply an economic determinist and this is basically the way that Elster and the rest of the AM school regards Marx. They adopt a schematic understanding of the relationship of base and superstructure that is at odds with Marx's own understanding. G.A. Cohen in particular is prone to do this and more about him next week.

Marx's journalistic writings defy an economic determinist approach to the class struggle. In the 18th Brumaire, he says:

"Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something entirely new, precisely in such epochs of crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle slogans and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language."

Not only does Elster fail to full understand the contradictory and complex aspects of the revolutionary class, he has a view of the ruling class that is deeply schematic as well. They, like the workers, act in their own self-interest in his own peculiar notion of capitalist politics. He interprets Marx's view of the capitalist state as acting in the "collective, long-term interests of the capitalist class." This means that such as state must preempt any revolutionary movement by granting reformist concessions. Elster is puzzled by this view since the evidence of history is that the "natural response of ruling classes is to meet social unrest by repression rather than preemption."

Leaving aside the question of whether or not this is actually true, one must raise the question of what type of homogeneous capitalist state and class Elster is speaking of. There has never been such a thing in history. There are inter-class divisions. There are divisions between industrial and finance capital. There are differences between various geographical sectors. There are racial and national differences just as there are in the working-class. These differences often play out in revolutionary politics as the socialist movement tries to divide one section of the ruling class against the other, as they do in turn with respect to the working class.

The worst aspect of Elster's theory is how deeply apolitical it is. There is almost no engagement with real politics and the real class struggle. Since self-interest guides all classes in society, it is folly to expect that your opponents will ever act irrationally. He says, "Marx sinned against a main rule of political rationality: Never make your plans strongly dependent on the assumption that the adversary is less than fully rational."

"Later communist leaders," Elster continues, "have been victim of the same hubris, most notably in the sequence of events that led up to the Shanghai massacre of Chinese communists in 1927. Although the CCP (or the Komintern) believed they could ally themselves with Chiang Kaishek for a while and discard him when his usefulness was exhausted, the manipulators ended up as the manipulated."

What is wrong with this analysis? It does not take into account the strenuous opposition of the Chinese Communist Party leadership to this very same policy. To refer to the CCP (or the Komintern) having a "belief" does violence to Chinese history. Leaving aside the whole question of whether socialist revolution was feasible at this time or whether Mao's strategy made more sense, we must pay heed to the clash of interests between a Marxist party and that of a state power that had begun to abandon the quest for world revolution. Matters such as this can only be understood by reading Marxist literature on the subject rather than Elster's glib and superficial version of events.

Elster has abandoned the whole AM enterprise and has devoted his attention to the whole question of the psychological motivation of political activity. Next week I will take a look at G.A. Cohen, whose understanding of historical materialism, while an advance over Elster's, still has nothing much to do with Marx's.

Louis Proyect